Four factors influence the health of the musculoskeletal system of your pet:
- Their body weight
- Joint degeneration (arthritis)
By feeding your pet a proper, species appropriate diet, giving them ample opportunity to move and exercise, and identifying and addressing potential problems with chiropractic care, massage, and stretching, you can help ensure your pet keeps a healthy frame.
We all want our animals to live long, healthy, happy lives, running and jumping while free of the pain of joint disease. Fortunately, many degenerative problems are not just a part of “normal aging” and are even preventable if addressed early on in your dog or cat’s life.
I’d like to give you the rundown on what causes degeneration to your pet’s frame, or musculoskeletal system, and some tips for preventing, or at the very least, slowing down that degenerative process.
There are four primary factors that influence your pet’s frame:
Species Appropriate Body Weight
Obesity has become an epidemic amongst dogs and cats in this country, just as it has for people.
Research has clearly shown that your dogs and cats are suffering from the same health problems as humans from chronically carrying too much weight. They are showing degenerative changes in their tendons and ligaments, and problems with their internal organs from the burden of the excess body fat. We are seeing increased rates of lung problems, diabetes and arthritis.
How does your pet become obese?
A lot like you do—from over-consuming and under-exercising. Most pet foods and treats on the market contain nutritionally empty, high-carbohydrate fillers such as corn, wheat, rice and soy. These fillers provide lots of energy, but for pets that aren’t moving enough, this extra energy supplies too many calories and results in weight gain.
The second major cause of obesity is medications.
For example, prednisone is a drug commonly given to dogs and cats for a ride range of conditions—itching, inflammation, and gastrointestinal disorders—because it suppresses symptoms.
But one serious side effect of prednisone is weight gain, because it’s a catabolic steroid, not anabolic. Catabolic means your pet’s body burns its muscle as a fuel source. Anabolic means the body is in growth mode, i.e., getting more muscular. Therefore, one side effect of a catabolic steroid is increased body fat and reduction of muscle mass.
Another thing that can rapidly lead to obesity is treats.
Yes, we love to give them and they love to get them—and treats are okay, provided the right types are given in appropriate quantities.
Dogs and cats are carnivores. So their treats should be protein-based, meaning meat. Protein treats supply the reward while not providing excess energy calories. And portion control is so important. I recommend only a pea-sized treat, regardless of whether you’re giving it to a Saint Bernard or a Persian kitten. The goal isn’t to make it a meal, only to communicate, “Job well done.”
Your Pet Was Born to Be an Athlete
All dogs and cats are genetically wired to be athletic. They evolved to run and jump and climb and chase. If you don’t provide ample opportunities for them to move their bodies, they can end up with bone and joint problems, and even behavioral issues.
There is excellent research that shows dogs and cats who have adequate exercise show far fewer behavioral problems than dogs and cats who are too sedentary. So, by walking your dog, you are addressing not only his physical health but his mental health as well.
Playtime isn’t enough.
By exercise, I mean aerobic exercise sustained for at least 20 minutes on a consistent basis (a minimum of 3 times a week). This is often a challenge for folks who come home tired after a long day at work. But I can’t stress enough how important this is.
Doing the Weekend Warrior bit isn’t going to cut it and may actually make matters worse by exposing your pet to potential injury.
If you have an indoor pet who doesn’t get out much during the week, then you ask him to go out and do a lot of jumping and twisting, you’ve created the opportunity for a torn ACL, a blown disk or another soft tissue injury because your pet isn’t properly toned or conditioned. You must be consistent.
It is best to alternate types of activity as well so that your pet receives attention to all of his muscle groups, not the same repetitive motion over and over again.
Indoor housecats are probably the most challenging to exercise, unless you have an unusual one who will chase you. Be creative. Run up and down the stairs with a string; play Pounce on the Feather, or try chasing the Wiffle ball from room to room. In my house it’s the laser pointer. Do whatever works!
Dogs’ and cats’ exercise requirements do NOT diminish with age—even geriatric pets need to move consistently. However, you will want to just adjust the duration and intensity for your pet’s level of endurance and agility.
Arthritis and Joint Degeneration
The third major contributor to musculoskeletal degeneration is degeneration of the joints, particularly arthritis.
There are many different types of arthritis but osteoarthritis, also known as Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD), is one of the big contributing factors to degeneration of your pet’s frame.
There are numerous causes of arthritis, but here are the main ones:
- Cartilage degeneration: A genetic predisposition to malformation of the joints, such as hip dysplasia in dogs that can cause early joint degeneration.
- Poor nutrition: High calorie carbohydrate-based diets can cause the body to grow faster than the cartilage does, inducing cartilage deficits.
- Autoimmune diseases in which your pet’s body attacks its own joints.
- Infectious diseases: Bacterial infections in the joints can trigger degeneration, as well as tick borne infections that spread to the joints.
- Trauma (known or unknown).
Early Trauma or Injury Can Lead to Joint Disease Later
Early pethood trauma is probably the most overlooked source of joint disease in dogs and cats.
It doesn’t have to be a major trauma like being hit by a car. It can even seem insignificant at the time.
For example, you take your dog for a walk on a leash. He spies a rabbit and instinctively tries to bolt, forgetting he’s tethered to the leash, which causes his head to jerk backward. This creates a common cervical injury that I often see evidence of later.
Young dogs are prone to flopping off sofas, falling down steps or out of the back of pickup trucks. They get up and trot away, leaving you with the impression that all is well. But the condition is a setup for later troubles.
Another example is when a newborn kitten gets her head stuck in the birth canal. Owners sometimes assist by manipulating the head during the birth process. However, kittens can suffer cervical injury from this and, if not addressed, can go through their lives with their heads not resting on their spines squarely, like with their head cocked, leading to spinal arthritis.
Often in puppy training classes, instructors will recommend you jerk at the neck to correct puppies from pulling on their leash. I NEVER recommend this because it so often results in cervical trauma, which leads to DJD later. These early dog and cat head traumas are one of the main reasons we see premature joint degeneration.
These seemingly minor traumas add up over time.
What is important to remember is that normal wear and tear can result in joint degeneration, if it’s not addressed. Minor traumas treated early can result in your pet’s leading a very normal life.
Preventing Joint Degeneration
I have four recommendations for treating and preventing your dog or cat from premature joint degeneration:
Chiropractic: If you have a pet that sustains an injury of any type, consider getting chiropractic care. Dog and cat chiropractic is an excellent and affordable way to realign the spine (and therefore the Central Nervous System.) Proper alignment prevents secondary compensation—meaning the body doesn’t shift into unhealthy positions to compensate for the injury, causing other problems down the road.
Massage: Pet massage is another good way to treat tissue inflammation and prevent secondary compensation in your animal’s body. There are some good books and videos out on how to do this yourself. Massage is also a nice way to bond with your pet and offers good opportunity to get familiar with where there could be tightness, inflammation or soreness.
Stretching: Stretching your pet is another beneficial practice for reducing degeneration and preventing soft tissue injury. It’s particularly helpful with older pets and competition/working dogs.
Supplements: Adding certain supplements to your pet’s diet can provide the raw materials for cartilage repair or maintenance, work with your holistic vet to determine a custom-made protocol for your pet’s specific musculoskeletal needs.
By implementing some common-sense measures in the areas of nutrition, exercise, and injury prevention, you can minimize your pet’s degenerative joint changes and help her live a long, healthy, happy and ACTIVE life.